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Nowhere Else to
Nowhere Else to Turn
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Nowhere Else to
Stories of the supernatural in Morocco.
4 - 'Nowhere Else to Turn
For more information about this book or to contact the author please email:
matthe w @ matthe whelmke. com
Contents © 2008 Matthew Helmke
Cover art by Matthew Helmke and © 2008 Matthew Helmke
Learn more about the author at http://matthewhelmke.com/
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First edition, published 2008 by Matthew Helmke.
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Matthew Helmke - 5
This book is dedicated ...
...to Boujmaa and Fatimafor their friendship, love and
insights into culture.
...to Hanane and other wonderful Moroccans like her for
being open and honest, even when talking about difficult
...and to the grumpy guy in the immigration office in Fes,
Morocco for forcing me to stretch myself linguistically,
culturally, and for providing me with multiple insights into
the culture that I never would have had if my interactions
with you had been easy or quick.
Nowhere Else to Turn
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I would like to thank my wonderful wife, Heather,
for her encouragement and assistance, especially being
willing to sit and chaperone while I interviewed Moroccan
women for portions of the background research. That
helped make the atmosphere significantly more
comfortable, both for the ladies I interviewed as well as for
Thanks go out to the many Moroccans who were
willing to discuss the topic of this book with me and share
their stories, even when they were nervous to do so. For
many, talking about these taboo topics required them to
confront fear of rejection, reprisal, and the supernatural
realm. It was not easy, but it was certainly appreciated and
I would also like to thank those of my friends and
colleagues who helped me edit, fact-check and prepare this
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book for publication, especially T. Aaron Robinette and
You might be interested to know that this book was
created and formatted using free software called Open
Office, available at openoffice.org, on a computer running
a free operating system called Ubuntu Linux, available at
Matthew Helmke - 9
Table of Contents
The Big Game 17
A Wife from the Mountains 23
Hamid's Field 35
Boy on an Errand 43
The Old Lady's Visit 53
A Visit at Night 65
I Can Tell Your Future 79
The Magic Shop 91
The Grotto Ill
Don't Cry 121
Final notes and thoughts 131
Fonts used 135
Also by Matthew Helmke 135
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Matthew Helmke - 1 1
Trapped. Powerless. We have all felt that way from
time to time. How we deal with those feelings depends a
lot on our personality, our experiences, and our points of
view. I find it interesting to observe people as they struggle
against the unknown. All of us experience mysterious
events in our lives. We ascribe those things to fate, to the
will of God, to happenstance, to luck, or to dark and
sinister forces, both seen and unseen. To a large extent, our
background and philosophy of life will determine who or
what gets the credit for the enigmas we encounter.
Every chapter in this book is a complete story in
itself. Some are long and some are short. Each is written
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from a specific and unique perspective, that of the person
from whom I heard the tale. Whether you believe in the
supernatural or not, whether you find the events I relay
credible or fantastic, I think you will find this collection
Each story is one which was told to me by a real
person, someone I met during my travels throughout
Morocco. Every single one was told to me as if it were
complete and absolute truth.
I do not claim that the enclosed are representative of
the majority of Moroccans, nor even the average
Moroccan. They may be, and they may not be. One person
in particular told me quite emphatically that "everyone in
Morocco believes in the supernatural, in sorcery, in
witchcraft, in spirits, and jinn^- and the evil eye, but no one
will admit it to you. They are afraid. They are afraid of
what you will think, that you will laugh at them. They are
1 Jinn are defined in the second chapter, A Wife from the
Matthew Helmke - 13
afraid of what might happen to them if they start to talk
about these things. Maybe a jinn or a sorcerer will hear
them and cause them problems. No one wants problems.
Everyone believes, even those who do not participate,
except to wear five against the evil eye." I can neither
confirm nor deny that claim.
The last phrase in that quote refers to a charm, in the
shape of the hand of Fatima, the Prophet's Mohammed's
daughter. Her hand, with its five fingers, is said to stop the
evil eye. It is said that there remains to this day a great
amount of right hand and left hand magic in Morocco. This
is a belief, one among many, that predates the coming of
Islam to this land, and which has never been eliminated.
The right hand is said to be capable of doing magic for
good for those who have studied and know how to wield
the power. The left is capable of great evil, but it is also the
hand with the power to stop the evil eye. The charms and
symbols, as well as the live act of putting up a hand to stop
the evil eye from causing harm, generally use the left hand.
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While I do not claim the following to demonstrate or
display truly universal beliefs in this country, regardless of
what this particular informant said, I do claim that these
are stories that would be considered credible by a large
number of people I have met in Morocco, and that the
people telling them to me were speaking in a manner that
was completely honest and forthright in their belief that the
stories are true and that they describe actual events from
their lives. I believe everyone was convinced of the truth
of what they were telling me. Ultimately, however, I will
let the reader decide. It is in this spirit that I will recount
the stories, with respect toward those who told them, and
with no wish to mock, or demean, or patronize.
I confess that I have added to each of these tales. My
additions have been in the areas of setting the scene,
broadening the characters, and filling out the dialogue.
These additions are completely mine and I must shoulder
the responsibility for any problems encountered with them.
The details and framework for each story remain
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completely intact as they were given to me and are things
for which I can take no credit.
The first story, The Big Game, is the only one that I
witnessed firsthand. I am the narrator, and Mohamed is a
real person. We attended the game in 2003, when I was
living in Casablanca.
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Matthew Helmke - 1 7
The Big Game
It was the day of the big game. My friend,
Mohamed, came to me and invited me to attend the match
with him. One of the two main soccer teams from
Casablanca, Raja, was going to play the national team
We approached the stadium about half an hour
before the game was to start. Many of the seats were
already filled. As we sat down, Mohamed nudged me and
"Look! The goalkeeper for Senegal is digging! That
I could see the man crouched in front of the goal he
would be defending. He had dug a small hole with his
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hands and was dropping something in.
"What is it?" I asked.
"They have magic. It is very powerful. He is
burying something that will protect the goal and not allow
the ball to enter. Our team is in trouble," my friend replied.
"Wait. You are a good Muslim. Surely you don't
beheve in this sort of thing," I asked.
"Of course I believe in it!" he replied. "How could I
not? Sorcery and magic are in the book^, so I know they
are real. We were warned to avoid these things."
I didn't know how to reply, so I just sat back to see
what would happen. The game started slowly, with the two
teams taking their turns to learn the other team's defense
strategy while attempting to penetrate it and score.
The Moroccan team tried again and again to score.
Each shot was blocked by the Senegalese goalie.
"You see?" my friend asked. "Do you see how
strong their magic is?"
2 The Qur'an.
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I could hear despair in his voice. Before I could
reply, Senegal scored a goal. The crowd erupted in moans,
cries, and a corporate time of mourning. There were shouts
and accusations of cheating and rules violations, the usual.
At halftime, the score remained zero to one, in the
Senegal team's favor.
A man came by selling handmade sandwiches, made
of egg, mayonnaise, and spices on half loaves of French
baguettes. Mohamed and I bought and shared one, while I
listened to his lament over the power of the sub-Saharan
goalie and his occult skills.
"Look, he's doing it again!"
At halftime, the teams switch sides on the field. I
didn't notice him dig the old one up, but as I turned to
look, I could see the same man digging and placing
something in the ground in front of the goal he would
defending in the second half of the game.
"We have to find a way to defeat their magic, or we
will never win." I could hear the same sentiment
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murmured over and over in the crowd around us.
The half got underway. Both sides were playing
good defense, and the ball never got close to either goal.
Then, with about ten minutes left in the game, a boy ran
out to the field. He looked to be about twelve years old,
and he was being chased by three security guards.
The crowd erupted in an exuberant cheer. My friend
elbowed me to get my attention and to make sure I
wouldn't miss the excitement.
"Look! He's going to get it!"
Sure enough, the boy ran quickly to the spot where
the opposing player had buried his talisman, dug it up, and
was nearly off of the field before the security men caught
up. As they carried him out of the stadium, the crowd went
wild, cheering their support loudly.
At that moment, the Moroccan team scored a goal.
A celebration erupted such as I have never seen. Joy was
everywhere, the joy of triumph. This seemed greater than a
typical celebration over scoring, this was good overcoming
Matthew Helmke - 21
evil, a winning of the war, the stadium's Independence
With two minutes left in the game, the Moroccan
team scored again. The cheers never ceased, but continued
well after the game itself was over.
My friend and I were carried out of the stadium by a
river of people, twenty thousand strong, all flowing to the
one exit door that was open and into the streets. We
walked a mile through the streets of Casablanca listening
to the shouts and jubilation of the victors.
As we did, he repeated over and over, "Did you see?
Did you see? They have great power, but we found a way
to defeat it!"
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A Wife from the Mountains
Life in the mountains is peaceful. Farming here is
difficult because of the rocky soil, but it is worth it. Why?
Because we are free. We come when we want, we go when
we want. No one comes up here to tell us what to do.
Sometimes the Makhzen come, men from the
government. They require us to pay taxes and fill out some
forms once in a while. Otherwise, they leave us alone. No
matter what they tell you in the town below, they don't
really rule here. We let them think so and they leave us
This is an empty place. It is quiet. Listen. You can
hear a gentle breeze, some birds across the meadow are
singing. Si Mohamed's^ donkey is braying on the next hill.
3 Si Mohamed means Mr. Mohamed and is a title of respect.
24 - Nowhere Else to Turn
complaining about being loaded up with vegetables to sell
in the weekly market down the hill. I don't blame him. I
wouldn't want to carry all that weight down the trail either.
Are you hungry? The figs are ripe, and they are very
good this year. I'll send Houda out to pick some. Houda!
Bring our guest some of the figs off of the tree, and get a
bowl of almonds, too. We had a good harvest of almonds.
I'm glad you came so early in the day, and
particularly at this time. The sun is out. It is a good time of
year. Not too hot, not too cold. It is also good that you
came on a souk day, when the weekly market is in session.
There is a lot of activity on the trails today. People are
hiking up and down the mountain from miles all around to
buy and sell. The activity is good, it keeps you safe. The
jinn don't like it when lots of people are around. They
always retreat to somewhere more remote on market days.
Did you know that it is dangerous to travel by
yourself in these mountains? We all live here as free men,
and we take our freedom seriously. We don't want anyone
from the outside to disturb our way of life, so we mostly
Matthew Helmke - 25
keep to ourselves. We watch out for each other, too.
However, our protection is not automatic for an outsider.
You came here with Mohammed, so we know you are
okay. Don't worry, you will be safe anywhere on this
mountain if you are with him. Everyone knows him. Don't
ever come here alone. You don't know who lives up here
and what they are capable of doing. That's why the
government leaves us alone.
I remember when the French were here. That was a
long time ago. I was already in my late 20s when we
kicked them out, so I remember a lot about their time in
the area. They thought they could come in and tell us how
to live, how to farm. They thought they could rule here.
They were wrong.
You see that hill? Over there, the tall one with the
narrow gorge? I watched some of my father's relatives
ambush a French patrol right there. You see that mound at
the bottom? That is where we buried a French officer who
tried to call for their troops to come in and cause us
trouble. After that, they didn't come up on our mountain
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Where did they Hve? Down there. See that hilltop
overlooking the town? No, not that one, it's too close. The
other one, about two miles from here, right above the
town. Yeah, there. On top of that hill is a fortress. It is in
ruins now, but when the French were here, it was the home
of more than ten thousand of them. They had a prison
there, too. My uncle was taken there and beaten. Others
were starved and tortured. That's why the place is in ruins.
Too much blood was spilled there. People can't live there
anymore. The place is haunted now.
The French came in, they told us they knew how to
live here. They told us they knew better than us. They said
they were more powerful than we are. Well, they had
better guns, and they had airplanes, but those only win
battles. You can't defeat people like us with something so
small as guns and airplanes, not in these mountains. We
have something better. We have freedom, and we will fight
to the end of time to keep it. We do what we want, when
we want, and we take care of our own.
See that mountain there? It has caves in it. The
caves are too small to see from here, they are about ten
Matthew Helmke - 27
miles away. When the French would come up the
mountains to look for us, we could see them a full thirty
minutes before they could get to us. They walk and hike a
lot slower than us, so sometimes it would take them almost
two hours to walk up here. By they time they would arrive,
they would find our homes empty and the places deserted.
They didn't know about the caves for a long time.
When they found out, they realized they could not get their
soldiers to the caves without passing through dangerous
places, where we would be able to kill them en route. They
didn't even try to come, but they sent their airplanes.
Do you see that broken area on the mountain? That
was caused by bombs from the French airplanes. The
caves are still there, and there are lots more that they never
found. They couldn't come in and beat us, so they decided
to try to hurt us by bombing the caves. Some people died,
most survived. We all got angry.
They would come and break things in our houses
while we were gone. Sometimes, someone wouldn't get out
in time and they would break up the house, destroy the
furniture, and kill the animals right in front of the person.
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Then, they would beat them up so badly they wished they
had died, but they didn't. Instead, they made sure the
person was just hurt badly, but not in danger of dying.
Why? To scare all of us. To try to make us into sheep who
would do their bidding. It didn't work. It made our blood
rise and the ferocity of our ancestors' warrior roots came
back into us. We fought back. We fought in whatever way
we could. And the jinn fought with us.
What are jinn? I thought you said you were
educated? What sort of worthless things do they teach at
Jinn are spirits. Some are good, some are bad. They
are like humans, but without physical bodies. Men were
made from dirt, jinn were made from fire. Some of the jinn
are believers and follow God, some are apostate and
follow only themselves or Satan. They can take physical
form, and they can change that form, but they will not
remain in any physical form. They are spirits.
No, no, they are different from angels. Jinn are not
eternal. They are born, they live, they get married, they
have offspring, and eventually, they die. They live a lot
Matthew Helmke - 29
longer than people, over many of our lifetimes.
Jinn can live anywhere in the world, but they prefer
quiet, solitary places. Sometimes they will live in caves,
but they especially like places where there is water, like
springs or wells.
They are a lot like us, here on the mountain. They
like to be left alone and not disturbed. Usually, if you treat
them with respect, they will leave you alone. Jinn and
people can live side by side in peace, if they respect each
People on this mountain have seen jinn for
thousands of years. It isn't as common now, probably
because there are a lot more people today than there used
to be, and the jinn like to be alone. Most have probably
moved on to more remote areas. When I was a kid, there
were less than half the number of homes here that there are
today, and the town at the bottom of the hill had maybe
five thousand people in it.
Of course I have seen jinn! I've seen them hundreds
of times with my own eyes. Most of the ones I have seen,
that interact with people, are unbelievers. They are evil.
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You can call them "demons." They like to play tricks on
people. They like to scare us and try to make us forget
Sometimes jinn will throw rocks at you while you
are walking down a trail. Usually, they are just little rocks,
pebbles that don't really hurt when they hit, but your heart
starts to beat faster and faster and faster. They love to do
things like this right at dusk, or later, during the night. I tell
people they should always try to be home and inside after
dark, if they are here on the mountain.
At other times, jinn will whisper things behind you
as you walk by. You won't see anything, but you will hear
someone call your name. Maybe they will start to tell you
things, like "I know where you have been" or "There is no
one at home right now." It's frightening.
There have been times when the jinn have appeared
to me, let me see them. I've seen jinn appear in the shape
of animals, like goats or sheep or cows, and then heard
human voices coming from their mouths. They may
choose to take the form of trees, like when you are walking
down a path that you know well and suddenly find a tree
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that was not there before. They sometimes look like rocks,
hoping that you will try to pick them up so that they can do
something bad to you.
It was about twenty five years ago when my father
died. No one wanted to prepare his grave. I was already
married and had children to take care of, some were in
their middle teens. I was about forty years old at the time.
They needed someone to be an example to them, so I
decided to take the responsibility and bury my father. It is
important in our faith to bury the dead within a day. I dug
the grave, laid my father in the hole, and covered him with
I ran into a problem. I didn't have any stones for the
top of the grave, to keep it from sinking in or being dug up.
I went out looking, even though it was getting late.
When you came to my house, did you see the fig
tree along the path, about a quarter mile from here? The
one with the spring next to it? Yes, that's the one, the short,
wide and oddly shaped one.
I walked up that same path that night, just at dusk,
and I saw a stone underneath that fig tree. The stone was
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perfect. It was large enough to cover much of the grave,
yet flat. It would take a lot of work to lift it and move it,
but that was exactly what I wanted.
I lifted the stone, slowly because it was very heavy.
Suddenly my head felt light, like I had been spinning in
circles over and over. I nearly fell down. That's when I
noticed that in the ground, where the rock was, there was a
hole that I had uncovered.
Out of the hole flew a group of eight or nine horses,
all black and very fast. They ran away quickly. Following
the black horses was a female jinn. She rose slowly and
said to me, "You have awakened me. You have released
me from my prison. Now, you must be my husband."
I was scared. I didn't know what to do. I tried to run
away, but I couldn't. She was wise and knowledgeable and
crafty. Every move I attempted she anticipated and
blocked. I was trapped and had to surrender. Her name was
I married Lalla Fatima and agreed that she would be
my wife. She was a Muslim jinn and promised that if I was
4 Lalla Fatima means Madame Fatima and is a title of respect.
Matthew Helmke - 33
honest with her, that she would help to protect and take
care of me. I was not allowed to tell anyone about her
other than my human family — my wife, and some of my
She was tall, with dark black features and no face.
She didn't have a nose, she didn't have eyes, she didn't
have a mouth, just smooth blackness where a face would
usually be. We were never intimate in a physical way, but I
saw her almost every day for over twenty years.
Lalla Fatima gave me knowledge, showing me new
ways to do things and work more effectively. She gave me
wisdom and advice and the ability to see and comprehend
new ideas quickly, more easily, and in greater detail. She
also did other supernatural things for me that I cannot talk
Jinn like her are one of the reasons that our people
will never be conquered or removed from these hills. I am
not the only one who has had an experience like this, and I
am not the only one who has benefited from a relationship
with one of the jinn, although there are very few who have
been married to one as I have.
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In return for all she gave me, I gave her
companionship. She was a widow. Her jinn husband had
died, and her jinn children were all grown and gone. I sat
with her. I talked with her. I shared my company with her.
One day, as suddenly as this all started, she
disappeared. I haven't seen her in about five years. I don't
know if she moved, if she died, or what has happened.
Maybe we each met each others needs and the task was
done and it was just time for her to go. I don't know. Only
Matthew Helmke - 35
"Hey, Where's Hamid? It's time to eat," called
Abdelhafid. "Oh, there you are. Why didn't you answer
me? I've been looking all over the house for you since I got
back from the south field, and here you are sitting on the
Hamid said nothing. He sat still. He didn't blink. He
didn't move. Abdelhafid checked for a pulse.
"What's wrong? Are you sick? You aren't warm, and
you are breathing. Why won't you answer me?"
Worry crept in to Abdelhafid's heart. This was so
unlike his brother. Most of the time the problem was
getting Hamid to be quiet. What could be going on?
Abdelhafid rose to find the others.
"Mother? What's wrong with Hamid?" he asked.
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"I don't know. He came in from the north field and
just sat down. He hasn't moved and he hasn't said a word,"
From the time they were small children Hamid and
Abdelhafid were very close. They would laugh, joke, sing
and dance their way through each day. Of the two, Hamid
was the most gregarious and had lots of friends.
There was a sound at the door.
"Hamid! Why didn't you finish seeding the north
field like I told you?! You were out there all morning, and
the task shouldn't have taken more than a couple of hours.
What were you doing all day?" It was their father,
No response. Hamid didn't even turn his head to
look. That day he ate nothing, said nothing, and never rose
from the couch after sitting down.
A week passed, then two. Finally, an entire month
had gone by. Hamid had not spoken once during that time,
and had barely moved from his seat. He hadn't worked, he
hadn't gone out.
"Hamid, eat something. You are wasting away!" his
Matthew Helmke - 37
mother pleaded. "Please, my beloved, eat. I don't know
what is going on, but no matter what it is, you have to eat."
Hamid drank a little water stoically and returned the
cup to the table.
His mother spoke to her husband, "Mohammed, I'm
worried. I am really scared that Hamid is going to kill
himself by not eating. You have to take him to the doctor."
Hamid's mother pleaded and pleaded for another
week until finally Mohammed was able to take time off
from the fields, arrange transportation, and take Hamid on
the half day journey from the countryside into town to see
When they returned late that night, the news was not
"The doctor says he can't find anything wrong with
him," said Mohammed to his wife and his other son,
Abdelhafid. "His body is fine. Something is wrong in his
mind or in his spirit."
The family summoned the local fakih^ This
particular fakih was special because he understood sihhar.
5 Religious teacher, leader, and local wise man.
38 - Nowhere Else to Turn
witchcraft, and could use his special knowledge and
powers to discern what was wrong with Hamid.
The fakih asked a few questions, thought for a bit,
and looked deeply into Hamid's eyes. He then wrote
something down on a piece of paper and gave it to the
family. Walking away from where Hamid could hear them,
the fakih said, "He has seen a jinn and it has taken him.
Take this paper, and dissolve the ink in a cup of water.
Give it to the boy and make sure he drinks it." Then the
Over the next several years the family spent all of
their money, paying multiple fakihs to come, trying
remedy after remedy. They took trips, pilgrimages to the
tombs of local and distant saints, saying prayers, lighting
candles, and leaving gifts. Nothing helped.
After seven years, Hamid walked with a limp. His
body became weak and gaunt. His hair grew long, dirty
and matted. He always appeared unsettled, nervous. He
looked around constantly.
"Where are you taking Hamid?" his mother called.
"The same place I always take him," replied
Matthew Helmke - 39
Abdelhafid, "Back to the north field. That is the only place
where he is content and will sit still. Maybe today he will
eat a little something while we are there."
"Take some of the lamb tajine with you from last
night's dinner. He always used to love lamb."
With that, Abdelhafid led Hamid to the north field,
taking him by his frail, shriveled, and nearly useless arm.
"The stars are beautiful on Tuesdays," said Hamid.
"What are you babbling about now?" asked
"If you look closely, you can see patterns in the
wind. There is a great truth there. You should stop to think
about it," Hamid continued.
Abdelhafid sighed lovingly, "There, there. That's
enough. We will be in the north field in a few minutes.
You can rest there."
"Blue is an odd name for a color. Why blue? Would
we still think of the sky in the same way if we called it
'shoe' or something else?"
"I don't know, brother. I don't know."
40 - Nowhere Else to Turn
They arrived in the field and sat on a rock, under a
tree at the edge, below a small hillside.
"You know, I don't think she will show herself
today, brother," said Hamid.
"Who?" asked Abdelhafid.
"You know who," he responded. "She doesn't come
when other people are with me. That's okay, though. I
want to be with you today. I only seem to be able to keep
my thoughts straight out here, and I'm glad you are here to
share them with me today."
"Me too," said his brother. "Hamid, when do you
think you will get better? Will you be able to help us work
the fields again?"
"That's not up to me. She is in charge of that. I only
care about what she wants and what she says. I live for my
"I think I'll call the Aissawa, the sufi brothers. They
are said to be able to break connections like she has made
with you, Hamid."
"Don't bother, brother. My Lalla Aisha is stronger
than the brothers and their chants. No. Until she decides
Matthew Helmke - 41
she is done with me, I am hers. Only in her presence am I
allowed to think, speak, and interact. She is here, you
know. Right now. With us. She won't let us see her,
because you are here, but she is here. I know, because I
only have peace when she is nearby."
So life went on. Abdelhafid worked the fields each
day. His parents spent everything they had to bring
Aissawa and Gnoua brotherhoods to the house to chant and
pray. They took Hamid to be seen by more and more fakih,
to various saints' tombs and festivals, and more. They did
everything they knew to do, and everything they were told.
Nothing made a difference. In the end, all was spent. They
died penniless, leaving only the north field to Abdelhafid,
because no one would buy it from them.
Hamid and Abdelhafid lived out their lives in a
small shack that Abdelhafid built near the rock, under the
tree, beneath the hillside. Hamid spent his days sitting
peacefully, staring into space and conversing with his Lalla
Aisha. He wouldn't bathe. His hair and beard grew longer
and more matted by the day. But, he was content.
Abdelhafid worked the fields, growing enough for them to
42 - Nowhere Else to Turn
feed themselves, and a little to sell. And time passed.
Matthew Helmke - 43
Boy on an Errand
The day started like any other day. I heard the clock
ring, followed by the usual sounds of breakfast being
prepared in the kitchen below my room. I rose to get
Bleary eyed, I washed my face, combed my hair,
and tried to brush the cobwebs of sleep out of my mind.
The sky was still dark. I heard the call to prayer come over
the loudspeaker, "Allahu akbar! Allahu akabar! ..."
I realized that I had just enough time, so I performed
my ablutions at home and got dressed quickly, then went
to the mosque to pray. It wasn't far, just a five or ten
minute walk. Today, I ran.
As I approached the door, I realized that I had worn
my good shoes. I didn't want to leave them at the door.
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because I was sure that I would worry about them being
taken while I was praying, and that distraction would
invalidate my prayer. To help me concentrate on God, I
asked a shopkeeper nearby for a plastic bag. I entered the
mosque, putting my shoes in the bag to keep next to me,
and went in to pray. They were just beginning, so I was
there in time.
After the prayer time, I returned home. The sun was
just peeking over the horizon and I knew my mother and
sisters would have food ready and waiting. I was right. I
sat and ate in silence and began to plan my day.
"First, I'll go to the shop and see what Abdsalaam
needs me to get for him." Abdsalaam is my oldest brother,
and the head of the family now that my father is gone. "If I
have time, I'll go to the cafe later with Simo and Tariq."
Those were some of my friends. We love to sit in cafes and
talk. We talk about sports, about politics, about the future,
and about the weather. We also talk about girls. A lot. But,
only when we are sure no one outside of the group is
I drank my juice and rose to leave. "Hamdullah," I
Matthew Helmke - 45
said. "Praise God." God is the reason we have food to eat.
It is important to remember to praise him for giving it to
Abdsalaam was not in a good mood that day. As
soon as I arrived, it began.
"You're late!" he growled.
"Forgive me, brother. It is exactly 8:30, the same
time I always arrive," I replied, trying to be submissive
and gentle, even while daring to contradict him.
"Don't talk back to me! You are lucky I even let you
work here you worthless, good-for-nothing, son of a ..."
The irony of him using phrases like that always
made me laugh. I tried to stifle it, but one slipped out.
Slap! His hand impacted the side of my head hard
enough to leave me unbalanced and dazed. I sat down
quietly and tried to keep the tears from appearing. Any
sign of weakness would only give an opening to more
I thought to myself, "If only I was older. If only I
was bigger. If only, if only, if only..."
"...and then you must take the envelope to Si Larbi.
46 - Nowhere Else to Turn
Don't delay! This is important. Wait there in his office
until he gives you something to bring back to me." I
realized my brother was talking to me, and that I had
missed half of what he said.
In my panic, I couldn't decide whether to ask him to
repeat his instructions, to make sure that I did everything
right, or not. What would be better? What would be safer?
Think fast! Too late.
"Why are you still standing there? Do you need me
to hit you again? Go!" Abdsalaam ordered, pointing to the
door of the shop.
I ran out the door. Not knowing what to do, I looked
at the envelope my brother had given me. It was sealed,
with no markings on the outside, and no way to tell what it
Si Larbi lived very far away, all the way across
town. I didn't have any money to take a taxi. I didn't even
have enough money for the bus. I decided I needed to start
quickly. It would take nearly two hours to walk there.
Another of my friends, Rachid, lived in the same
part of town as Si Larbi. His house was on the way, so I
Matthew Helmke - 47
decided to stop and say, "Hello." It would only take me a
couple of minutes, and if he heard that I was so close and
didn't stop, he might be hurt.
"Welcome! I'm so glad to see you. Come in. Come
in." Rachid greeted me with a huge smile and let me to the
sitting room. He stepped out quickly and returned minutes
later with a small table, some cookies, and a pot of tea.
"Tell me, how are you? What's new? How is your family?"
The questions went on and on, one after the other, with no
chance to answer the first before the second was spoken.
I smiled and responded in a similar fashion. After
completing the ritual, we settled in to a peaceful and quiet
posture, each of us relaxed and sitting back in our seats.
"I told my mother to make sure we have enough
couscous. You have to join us for lunch today," my friend
said. This was more of a polite order than a question.
"No, I can't," I protested. "My brother sent me to
take this envelope to Si Larbi and I need to do it quickly."
"Si Larbi? He is on your side of town this morning.
He won't be back until after lunch anyway."
We both looked at the clock.
48 - Nowhere Else to Turn
"There is no way you can make it back across town
before he leaves to come home. You should stay here, eat
with me, and go to his house afterward," Rachid advised.
I tried to protest, to make sure he really wanted me
to stay and eat. After the third invitation, I relented. He
wanted me to stay, and I was hungry.
We finished the meal around 2 p.m. I thanked my
friend profusely, pronouncing blessing after blessing upon
him and his family. Then I walked out to door to find Si
When I arrived at Si Larbi's house, only the maid
was home. She let me sit on the front step, out of the sun,
but she would not let me enter the house. I waited.
After what seemed like forever, but was really about
two hours. Si Larbi arrived. He saw me and exclaimed
kindly, "There you are! I looked all over for you near your
brother's shop. You didn't have to come all the way over
here. Did you bring it?"
I handed him the envelope. He opened it and
frowned. "Didn't you go to the bank first? This is a letter
telling them to deposit the money, that is here in the
Matthew Helmke - 49
envelope, into my account. You were supposed to bring
me the deposit receipt, and I was going to give you an
Embarrassed, I let out a meek, "I'm sorry. I
Si Larbi was very gracious and said, "That's okay. I
have to be on your side of town again tomorrow. Have it
ready for me then and I'll come to the store."
As I walked away, I wasn't sure whether to feel like
the luckiest person alive to be treated so kindly, or whether
to shake and cry in terror as I imagined what Abdsalaam
would do to me. I began the long hike home.
It was late. I thought I would try to save some time
by crossing the creek at a place where there were some
rocks that stick up, instead of walking all of the way
around to the bridge.
It was right at dusk as I approached the water's edge.
I stumbled. I almost fell in, but someone grabbed me. I
started to thank him, but he didn't let me go. Instead, he
gripped my arm more tightly and pulled out a knife.
The man dragged me to a nearby house and roughly
50 - Nowhere Else to Turn
threw me toward the door. He ordered me to remove my
shoes and go inside. I did. I entered a room with one small
window, overlooking a market down the hill.
I began to ponder my fate. What would happen to
me? What was going on? I also wondered whether being
forced into slavery would be worse than returning to face
The door locked behind me. I was alone. I heard
noises coming from the house next door, and then the call
to prayer. Then I heard the screams.
The man returned, dragging behind him a young
woman. Her arm was twisted behind her back. He was
hitting her and she was screaming, "Don't send me away!
Don't hit me!"
He told me to get out and I did. I ran. I didn't get
very far. Just outside the house next door stood an old
woman. I pleaded, "Woman, do you know what is
happening here? We need to call for help!"
She told me to be quiet. "That man is my son," she
said. "Listen, and I will explain everything.
"The woman you saw is his wife, but she is not a
Matthew Helmke - 51
normal woman. No, she is not even human. She is a jinn.
"Every evening, at the call to prayer, she changes.
One day she is wonderful; polite, kind, and humble. The
next day, she is horrible and evil. Every single day she
"You arrived just as the change was about to
happen, and she was out near the creek. My son brought
you inside to keep you safe. If you had seen the change
take place, the jinn may have decided to kill or injure you."
They returned my shoes, brushed me off
apologetically, and I walked away stunned. What should I
believe? What should I do? What shall I tell my brother?
It was at that moment that I realized it. My envelope
was gone. The screams of the jinn behind me kept me from
going back to look for it.
52 - Nowhere Else to Turn
Matthew Helmke - 53
The Old Lady's Visit
Aicha rose slowly and hobbled across the room. It
was dark, but that didn't really matter. She had been living
here so long that she could move around safely with her
eyes closed. That was a good thing, too, because her
eyesight was failing. It was for this reason Aicha presumed
that the world would forgive her dingy home, poor attire,
and disheveled hair. If she can't see it, she can't be
expected to do a good job cleaning or maintaining it.
"Ohh," she groaned as she thought about the day to
come. "If only I weren't so old, this would be easy." She
dreamt back to the days of her girlhood, back when she
would run, skip and play like a baby sheep, happy and
playful in its innocence.
Someone in the government office had asked her
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last week how old she was. Aicha responded as she always
did, "You can read the card." She was referring, of course,
to her government issued identity card, which everyone
had been required to carry for years.
"Yes, but your card just says, 'unknown,'" replied
the confused official.
"Well, if you people, who are paid to know
everything, don't know how old I am, then how am I
supposed to know?" Aicha responded, with a hint of
playfulness and a slight bit of that air of authority that only
elderly matrons have. No one argues with an old woman,
she thought to herself, especially one as old as me.
Truthfully, no one in the village knew how old
Aicha was. She had always been there, it seemed. There
was one old man there, the oldest in town with a birth
certificate. He was 83, and he remembered Aicha being old
enough to take care of him and his sisters when he was a
small boy, so she had to be at least eight or ten years older
than him. And she looked it.
Whether it is polite to talk about the elderly this way
or not, I am merely trying to be truthful. Aicha looked
Matthew Helmke - 55
every bit of 90 years old, and perhaps more. She was short,
probably much shorter than at the peak of her life. Her
weakening and shrinking frame caused her to walk with a
bit of a stoop, leaning on a sturdy old stick she used as a
cane. She didn't bother with a veil or headscarf anymore
and she liked to joke about it saying things like, "What,
I'm going to incite some man to lust uncontrollably if I
don't wear these? I would like to meet the man who is
excited by my thinning white hair and deeply lined face."
Most believed she was only half joking.
Today, Aicha was going to visit her relatives, her
nieces and nephews, at their home. She had lost track of
everyone's name in the newest generation and all the
specific details of their lives, but someone in the family
was having a birthday, or a circumcision, or some other
It was even harder to remember since Aicha had
never married and therefore never had children of her own
to take care of her in her old age. She had passed from her
father, to her brother, to one of her nephews, and later to
one of the boys in the generation after that. The people she
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now called nieces and nephews were actually great or
great-great nephews or something like that. She once tried
to remember and realized she didn't actually care. It was at
that moment that she had decided, and announced the
decision, that she would be living on her own for the rest
of her days.
Aicha wasn't quite certain whether everyone was sad
she had moved out or happy to see her leave. It was true
that she wasn't of any use doing housework or helping
raise the young children anymore. Then, almost all of them
promised immediately to give her a small amount of
money each month. It wasn't much, but she always had
enough to pay the rent for her small room and to provide
for her meager food needs.
So, Aicha went to the party. Upon her arrival, she
was guided gently into the sitting room, to a seat of honor
in the women's salon. From there, she couldn't see the
door, or the window, or the food, or really follow what was
going on, but everyone that came to greet her said this was
the seat of honor, so why argue?
At that moment, Aicha started. "He's coming! Get
Matthew Helmke - 57
ready," she exclaimed loudly. Her shrill voice became
quite loud and animated and she began to direct the family
with her hands.
"Who is coming, auntie? What's wrong?" the family
asked with concern.
"Why, the fakih, of course. He is almost here," she
replied in a matter of fact tone.
"Auntie, what are you talking about? Why would
the fakih come?" one asked.
"Ask Mohammed, he gave the invitation," she said.
Just then, there was a knock at the door. It was the
village wise man, the fakih. Aicha didn't notice, but several
of the family members began to stare at her with fear in
their eyes. "Go get Mohammed," one said.
Mohammed arrived and greeted the fakih. "Thank
you for coming to pray the blessing. We are almost ready."
His family asked him if he had told Aicha about
inviting the fakih. "No, of course not. I didn't tell anyone,
not even you," was his reply, as he led the old sage into the
The music played. The food was served. Time
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passed. Alternately, Aicha nibbled at her food, talked
quietly to anyone who came to greet her, and took short
naps. Then the house became quiet. Even from the
woman's salon, Aicha and the other ladies could hear the
fakih begin to recite from the Qur'an. He chanted slowly,
melodically, with a rich and almost sad sounding tone. At
one point Aicha interrupted the proceedings from her seat.
"Stop! That should have been a fatha, not a
damma,'"' she exclaimed, referring to the vowelling of an
Arabic word in his recitation. The family rushed to her to
quiet her down, but she would not be pacified. She
repeated herself, even more loudly the second time. This
time, the fakih heard her, to the embarrassment of the
Quietly he asked, "Is the lady a sage?"
"No, sir," the eldest man in the family replied. "She
cannot read nor write a single letter. She has never been to
school or studied anything scholarly in her entire life. I'm
so sorry, sir, for the interruption. Please forgive her. Please
forgive our family for the disgrace. Please continue with
6 These are the names of two short vowel sounds in Arabic.
Matthew Helmke - 59
the blessing. Please..."
"That's enough," the old man broke in gently.
"Bring the old lady in here to me."
Everyone's eyes widened. This breach in protocol
was unprecedented. What would the village wise man say?
What was he going to do? Would the family be ruined?
Embarrassed? A nervous silence ensued as Aicha was led
into the man's salon.
"What did you say, madam?" asked the fakih.
"My lord, you made a mistake." Aicha replied
politely, yet firmly. "You pronounced a damma in that
word, and it should have been a fatha."
"That is quite a scholarly comment for someone
who cannot read nor write. When and where did you
memorize the Qur'an?" he asked.
"I have not," said Aicha.
"How then can you speak with such authority?"
At this the family broke in, again begging the sage's
pardon for the humbling correction, for the interruption,
and for the embarrassment.
"Please, be quiet," he said gently to the others. "The
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lady is quite correct. I have quoted tliis passage with the
same mistake for years and no one has caught it until now.
This lady, Aicha, should be honored and respected as one
blessed by God, for it was not through study or memory
that she discovered the error, but by something more
powerful and mysterious."
The room fell silent. Nervous glances were
exchanged everywhere as the family suddenly acted as if
they just wanted the ceremony to end.
"May I ask one more time, dear one, how you
knew?" prodded the fakih kindly.
Then, a different voice, that of a man, spoke out of
Aicha's mouth. "We are believers," it said in a low, smooth
tone. "Don't worry, we do not want to disturb anyone's
peace. We will be quiet now."
At that, the old woman fell to the ground. She began
to tremble wildly, flailing about with her hands and feet
and head thrashing. Her face contorted into a grimace.
"Leave her!" shouted the fakih. He began to quote a
different passage of the Qur'an over her, expecting that to
exorcise the jinn.
Matthew Helmke - 61
At this, the voice speaking from her changed. Now,
it was much more gravelly and rough. "No!" it screamed.
"She is ours, and you are a fake. You have no authority
here. You can't even quote a simple and common passage
correctly. You leave!" The shrieks and screams turned into
a low, rumbling growl, like that of a large dog who has
The fakih continued, getting louder and more
intense as he recited.
Yet another voice began to speak from Aicha's
mouth. This one was calmer, more controlled, and spoke in
a melodic and smooth tone, with a hint of mockery. "I
know that passage, too," it said. Immediately, this voice
began to recite the same passage as the fakih, using the
same tones, the same inflection, the same rhythm. It was a
perfect imitation, except for the addition of a mocking
expression on Aicha's face and an "I dare you to continue"
look in her eyes.
The fakih stopped and exclaimed, "I will never
return to this house or pray over anyone in this family
again." With that, he bundled up his things and walked
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Some of the family chased after him, trying in vain
to change his mind, but he had been shamed. That shame
would be too much to bear. He would leave and deny the
entire incident. It would be the word of a family against
the word of a well respected scholar. He would be fine.
The rest of the family divided the chores in the
house, cleaning up, resetting the home, and some knelt on
the floor next to Aicha.
"What is going on? What do they want with her?
What can we do?" they asked themselves, each other, and
even the jinn. At first, the only response was silence and
continued grimaces, contortions, and spasms. Finally, one
asked directly, "What do you want with her?"
"It's not your business..." came the slow, measured,
rumbling reply. Then silence.
Suddenly, it was over. As quickly as the episode had
begun, Aicha became herself again. "Why am I on the
floor?" she demanded. "Help me up. It must be getting
late. I have to go home. How did I get in this room?"
"You don't know, auntie?" one of the younger ones
Matthew Helmke - 63
"Don't play games with me, I'm an old woman. You
should be ashamed of yourself." Aicha gathered her
belongings and hobbled out the door. No one followed.
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Matthew Helmke - 65
A Visit at Night
Aaaiieeh! Aaaiieeeeh! Aaiieh!! Houda awoke with a
jolt, screaming and trembling in fear. She began to quote
and recite the Qur'an repeatedly and loudly. Her sister,
Amina ran into the room.
"What happened? What's wrong?" she yelled.
Aaaaiieeeh! Aaaah! and again Houda returned to her
"Tell me! Tell me what is wrong! How can I help?"
her sister demanded. By this time the rest of the family had
arrived. In the presence of them all, Houda began to
describe what had happened.
"I was asleep," she began, "and I felt something. A
big, heavy weight laid hold of my feet. It crept up my legs
and continued up my entire body until it arrived at my
chest. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't speak. I couldn't cry
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out. I couldn't even move. I was paralyzed and I was
trapped. As I felt it move up to my neck, I was certain that
death was close.
"I started to recite the Qur'an, first in my mind, and
then slowly, as I was able, with my lips. It began silently,
but God hears all. Then, I was able to whisper, in a voice
softer than a breeze. My heart was beating so loudly in my
ears that I still couldn't hear myself. The feeling started to
"I was able to move my head. I knew I had to
continue the fight, or I would die. I kept repeating the
Qur'an over and over and over. Anything and everything I
could remember, I spoke. It worked. The oppression went
away little by little. When you heard me scream, it was the
first time I could make any noise out loud, and I regained
that ability just as the feeling left my feet and I would start
to move again."
Lalla Saida, Houda and Amina's grandmother spoke
up. "This was a boubrak'. It is very dangerous. You could
have been killed. A jinn was sent to you to take you. We
7 This is the name for the event.
Matthew Helmke - 67
must act quickly to keep you safe."
"Mother," interrupted Karim, their father, "No one
believes in that garbage. Don't scare them and fill their
minds with superstitious nonsense."
"Shh!" she replied quickly. "Hamza fii al ayin."
"Five in the eye." It means, "May the hand of Fatima blind
the evil eye and protect us." "My son, you don't know
what you are saying. There are many things in this world
which you understand better than me, but not this one.
Leave and let me take care of my granddaughters."
Karim sighed. Most of the world may belong to
men, but not this part. He wanted nothing to do with
witchcraft, jinn and superstition, but there was nothing he
could do to combat it. There was also a very small part of
him that worried about whether she might be right. "It is
best not to get involved with this," he thought to himself,
"Listen to me and I will teach you," began Lalla
Saida. "We must get you to a fakih quickly. Today. He can
pray and recite over you a spell of protection after making
sure that the spirit has gone. Then we will buy a new
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hamza charm for you to wear and anything else he
recommends. Do you have any money?"
Houda nodded. "I have fifty dirhams."
"Oh no, that's not enough," her grandmother replied
sadly and fearfully, "And I don't think Karim will give us
Amina quickly interjected, "I have two thousand
rials (one hundred dirhams)."
"Perfect. All together we will have enough," sighed
a relieved Lalla Saida. "First, let us go to the hammam and
do the cleansing."
"Grandmother, I can do wuzu here, why do we need
to go to the hammam?"
"No, my child. The lesser ablution is not sufficient.
We don't know what the jinn might have done while you
were paralyzed. We must be cautious and make absolutely
certain you are ritually clean. We must make ghasul al
janabah, the greater cleansing, for you."
"Grandma! I'm a virgin. That is not necessary! That
washing is for after sex."
"Trust me, my girl. That is not its only purpose.
Matthew Helmke - 69
Come, we must go quickly."
The three of them went to the hammam, the local
bath house, to perform the ritual cleansing, Houda, because
she needed to, Lalla Saida, because she knew how, and
Amina for moral support. It was a quiet time of day and
only two other women were in the hammam. That was
good, because Houda wasn't sure she would be able to
handle the stress of other women seeing her perform this
ritual and wondering if she had become a dirty sinner. In
truth, no one else even noticed she was there. They were
only there for a few minutes, not the typical full morning's
relaxation of a standard, weekly visit.
As they exited, Amina asked, "Grandmother, how
will we find a fakih to help us?"
"Don't worry, my child. I know a very good sihhar^
nearby. I have used him many times."
"Grandma!" exclaimed both girls.
"You have had good lives so far and I have been
able to shelter you from this world, but it is very real. We
have had supernatural help to keep you safe, to get a job
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for your father, and later a promotion, to protect against
sickness, and more. This man can be trusted to help us,"
explained Lalla Saida.
They walked quickly and quietly the rest of the way
through the city. It was only a couple of miles away, and
before too long they arrived at a tall, nondescript
"This is it?" asked Houda. "Somehow I was
expecting something more mysterious looking, more
"Don't judge from looks. Water may be held by any
jar, not only the most ornamented," replied her
They entered and climbed the stairs, three flights to
the correct door. There were no markings except for the
apartment number. There was no sign and no other way to
know who or what might be inside. This was a place to
which one only came by introduction or invitation.
Lalla Saida knocked softly. A voice from inside
called out, "Who is it?" Quietly she answered, "Those who
seek truth and safety." The door opened and the three
Matthew Helmke - 71
seekers entered respectfully, as if entering a holy
"Give me your identity card," demanded a young
Shocked, all Houda could think of to reply was,
"Your identity card. I need it to make your
appointment with the master," the girl replied.
"Grandma, this is weird and I feel uncomfortable.
Let's get out of here," said Houda. "Why should he need
my card and identity info?"
"My child, the sorcerer needs it to confirm you are
telling him the truth during the interview."
Just then the girl broke in. "No, I'm just joking. I
saw that once on a television show with Lalla Fatima and it
always makes me laugh to watch newcomers squirm
uncomfortably." She laughed good-naturedly. "You don't
need to give me your card. I will need to ask a couple of
simple questions, if that is okay."
A little confused, but relieved, Houda nodded. "Go
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The girl asked about her age, where she was from,
her name, and why she had come to see the sorcerer.
Houda replied honestly, and a bit more completely than
she had intended to do. The three seekers were directed to
sit and wait in a salon while the girl who received them
went further into the apartment to talk to the master.
A few minutes later the lights dimmed and the girl
returned. "The master will see you now. His eyes don't like
the light, so I had to turn them down. Please, stay seated
and he will come in shortly."
"Ask for deliverance," came a quiet and raspy voice
from the hall. "Ask for deliverance," it repeated. Slowly an
old man rounded the corner into the room. He was short
and frail, wearing the traditional robes of a southern
Berber and a turban. His face was deeply lined and his
dark eyes were set back deep into his forehead, set off by
his short, white beard. He shuffled into the room and again
said, "Ask for deliverance" as he was seated opposite the
ladies. He stared at them expectantly. It was the
grandmother who answered first.
"Deliverance," she said.
Matthew Helmke - 73
Quickly, the two girls repeated after her,
"Which of you is the one who experienced the
boubrak?" asked the old man quietly.
"It was me," Houda replied tentatively.
"Give me your hand my daughter and I will take a
She held out her hand to him.
"No, child, not the hand of evil. Give me your right
hand, unless you are Fatima herself, the left hand is
dangerous and I don't want to touch it," began the old man.
Embarrassed, she withdrew her left hand and gave
him the right. "I'm so stupid," she thought to herself, "I
have never given anyone my left hand. Perhaps I am
inhabited by jinn."
The sorcerer stared at her hand a long time. He
traced the lines with the index finger of his right hand,
while holding the hand palm up with his left hand under it.
Occasionally he made odd grunts and thoughtful sounds.
Hmm. Eiee. Hrumph. This didn't make Houda feel good.
"What do you see, my lord?" said Lalla Saida,
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finally breaking the tension and disturbing the near silence
of the room.
"Oh, my sister! This is not good. Our daughter is in
great danger. Someone has cursed her. It is good that you
came so quickly. Do you have the money?"
Lalla Saida looked at the sorcerer with confidence,
"Yes, sir. We brought three thousand rials. It is all we
"Very good," he replied. "Give me one hundred
dirhams. You will need the remaining fifty to buy the
things I tell you to buy. That will be enough to keep her
safe the rest of the week, and give you time to gather
together more money. Next week, bring me two hundred
and fifty dirhams, and I will make an amulet that will keep
her safe forever. For now, this will do."
He motioned to his assistant, the girl that greeted
everyone at the door, and she took the money from Lalla
"Now, my daughter," he said to Houda, "Let us take
a closer look. First, repeat after me, and then I need
absolute silence. Deliverance."
Matthew Helmke - 75
"Deliverance," they all repeated. This happened two
more times, and then the room fell quiet as the man
appeared to enter a trance. He swayed back and forth
smoothly, rhythmically. His eyes glazed over and he began
to speak to the spirits, "Oh, jinn! I adjure you in the name
of Sulayman the great, your master, to tell me all I need to
know to help this girl. I appeal to the good among you.
Show me how to prevent the evil one, the evil eye, from
taking her away to hell." This continued for a full twenty
minutes, with alternating requests, demands, and
invitations, all aiming to invoke action from among the
jinn. He appealed on behalf of the girl, her sister, her
grandmother, her other relatives, both living and dead, on
behalf of the Prophet Mohammed and on behalf of his
daughter, Fatima, on behalf of other saints long dead and
other persons whose names had no meaning whatsoever to
In the end, he stared at Houda. Then he looked at
Amina. Finally, he looked at Lalla Saida and spoke to her
in a low, conspiratorial tone, "Woman, you understand.
These children do not yet comprehend what is attacking
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them. You must be the responsible one. Take them under
your wing and protect them. Guide them. Teach them. You
must go to the market and buy what I tell you, and prepare
it. They won't know how. The responsibility is yours, no
one else can carry it for no one else is capable. Are you
ready and willing?"
"Yes, by God," she replied seriously.
He gave her a list of things to buy in the
marketplace, powder made from a dried toad, a bit of hair
from a zebra's hide, and several other exotic and
frightening things. "Prepare it as I have instructed you, and
use it as I have directed. Come back next week with the
money, like I told you. Then we will finish the task."
He rose silently and walked out of the room.
Immediately the lights came on and the spell of the
atmosphere and the sorcerer's presence was broken. The
girl who welcomed them at the beginning returned and
said kindly, "I hope we will see you next week. Come back
and all will be well."
The three ladies rose in silence. They looked at one
another fearfully. What would happen? Truly no one
Matthew Helmke - 77
knew. None of them had the money that was being
requested. How would they raise it? Would this be Houda's
last week alive? Only God knows.
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Matthew Helmke - 79
I Can Tell Your Future
I have never been to a fortuneteller or a sorcerer.
Those things are forbidden in Islam. They are from Satan.
Good people should not have anything to do with them.
Not ever. This is what The Prophet (peace be upon him)
said and taught. This is what the holy Qur'an says. This is
what is written in the traditions and what is taught by the
It really doesn't matter anyway. The people who do
these things are only doing it because they want money,
and there are always ignorant people who are willing to
give them money. I don't think there are any real
fortunetellers. I don't think the people claiming to be
sorcerers and witch doctors have any real power. They mix
up potions out of their heads and use smooth sounding
words that say nothing. If there has ever been any power in
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that sort of thing, it has gone out of the universe.
Oh, wait! I did know one girl, when I was still in
secondary school. She was a Moroccan Jew, and she
claimed she could tell the future. She was from Fez, from
the Hassarfati family, but nowadays they call themselves
Serfati. I don't know why. I won't tell you her first name. It
doesn't matter anyway, she moved to Spain a long time
ago. That was the last I knew of her. Anyway, I'll call her
Sara and I used to spend a lot of time together. We
grew up in the same neighborhood. We played together as
children, even though she is a Jew and I am a Muslim, we
were close friends. We went to the same schools. We
attended the same classes. We liked the same boys.
For years, Sara and I would sit together and dream
about the future. First, we used to talk about what would
happen when the French leave, when they are forced out of
Morocco. Mohammed V, then called a sultan, was still in
exile, but our families were working together to help him
return. Did you know that the independence movement
began in Fez? Well, it did. And it was people from Fez that
Matthew Helmke - 81
made the French sit up and take notice. It was people from
Fez that convinced our countrymen to rebel against the
oppressor. It was our city that led us out of bondage.
We felt good in those days. We would talk of what it
would be like when our good sultan was returned to us.
Did you know that Hitler once sent him a message, while
he was still in exile, offering to help return him to power in
exchange for all the Jews? Really, he did. Do you know
what Mohammed V said in response? He said there are no
Jews in Morocco, that there are no Muslims or Arabs or
Berbers either — there are only Moroccans. It was the
French who used ethnicities and religion to divide us, and
it was Mohammed V who helped unite us. Back then, we
really believed it. We were sure that in the golden future,
there would be no class, ethnic or religious struggles
anymore, not for us Moroccans anyway.
So Sara, she and I were nearly inseparable. We
would leave our houses early in the morning to meet each
other and walk slowly to school, savoring each moment of
one another's company. We would meet in class, when
possible, or during breaks to chat and gossip about the
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day's events and the boys we had seen. Oh! We were some
of the first to have the privilege of attending school. That
was because of our families and the powerful positions
they had in the community, as well as the beginning of
changes in society. We dreamed that one day, all girls
would have the opportunities we were enjoying.
After school, we would walk home together, slowly.
Not too slowly, though. If we took too long we would both
get in trouble. Our families wanted to be sure to preserve
our honor and that of each family, so we couldn't be out
and away from supervision for very long.
And then, the best part, every once in a while,
maybe once every month or two, we would have a chance
for one of us to visit the other at her house. Oh, how we
loved those moments! We would arrive, greet all the
female elders and sisters, and then run off to hide in a
forgotten corner or room to giggle and whisper.
This went on for years. We were best friends from
the time we were four or five years old, until we were in
our later teen years. Then, we found out something about
her that had been hidden and secret for all these years. She
Matthew Helmke - 83
was an ifrit, a demon child. What do I mean? Child, who
teaches the youth these days? Do you know nothing of
what is important in life? Listen, and I'll tell you the rest of
the story. Hopefully you will understand.
One day, when we were about sixteen or seventeen,
Sara came to my house. My grandmother was ill, and she
came to bring her family's greetings and best wishes for a
speedy and complete recovery. After that, we went into a
room by ourselves. Sara closed the door. That was rare, but
not so uncommon that we would get in trouble for doing it.
It usually meant she had some especially good gossip
about a boy we both liked, or perhaps some sensitive news
about a family in the neighborhood.
Instead, she pulled out some cards. I didn't know
what they were, or what they were even called. I asked her
where she got the pretty pictures. She smiled and called me
silly. "Don't you know what tarot cards are?" she said
gently. I was terrified, she wanted to tell our future. I
protested that this was forbidden, but she interrupted me
and told me to give her my hand, my right hand. Since she
put the cards away, I thought it would be okay, so I did.
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She studied my hand for a while, then she said
softly, "I have bad news. I'll tell you that at the end. First,
call your sister." When my sister arrived, Sara looked at
her hand as well. "Oh, lovely. I have interesting and
mostly good news for you."
Sara proceeded to tell my sister that she would
marry a Frenchman, move to France, and that she would
marry two times. We replied that this was absurd. It is
impossible for a Muslim girl to marry a Christian man. It is
impossible for a woman to have more than one husband,
because it is vital to know who her child's father would be
(which is also why it is okay for a man to have more than
one wife, you always know who the father of all the
children is, but I'm getting sidetracked). It is impossible
because our family doesn't know any foreigners, and
especially not among the French. Ridiculous.
Sara only replied by telling me to call my brother
into the room. This was unusual, and not really acceptable,
but times were changing. We thought that maybe it would
be okay to allow him into the room with all of us girls.
Plus, Sara wouldn't be alone with him, both my sister and I
Matthew Helmke - 85
We called him and he came. She looked at his hand
and told us all that he would meet an American woman
and move with her to her country. Well, we conceded that
it is legal in Islam for a Muslim man to marry a Christian
wife, but we still said it was absurd. We did not know any
Finally, she looked at me. "I have very bad news for
you. Are you sure you want to hear it? You don't have to."
Since we all thought that she was just making things
up and playing some sort of silly game, we all agreed that
she should tell us her news.
Sara said that I would never get married, that my
brother would get married first, and then my sister. Then
she said that our grandmother would not recover from her
sickness, but would instead die within the week.
All three of us exploded. How dare she come into
our house and say such offensive and outrageous things!
She insulted my family, she insulted me. I am the oldest. I
can see how my brother, a male, might get married before
me, but not my sister. Plus, women here always get
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married young, and men do not marry until they can
support a wife and family, so they get married older. The
worst was having the nerve to say that our beloved
grandmother would die, and to say so in our house! We
grabbed her, dragged her to the door, and tossed her into
the street, telling her to never return.
You have to be careful with people who are not
Muslim. Sometimes, even if they mean well, they start
playing with powers they don't understand and it warps
them. Sara was always such a wonderful friend. How this
could have happened, we did not know. We were not
worried about what she said coming true, as we were
convinced it was not real, and that if it were, that God and
The Prophet (peace be upon him) would protect us because
we are true Muslims.
Then grandma died. It was only four days later. We
wept and mourned. Sara's family sent word that they
would ask the rabbi at the Em Habanim synogogue to say
the kaddish for her. We told them not to bother, that we
didn't want or need their satanic mysticism in our family.
If their daughter could predict the future, she was in league
Matthew Helmke - 87
with devils. If she could not, then she was a deceiver and a
liar and therefore evil. And in any case, she had insulted
our family in our own home. As a result, we cut all ties to
her and to her family.
We never heard from them again. I did see Sara
walking to and from school on occasion, but only from
afar. Each of us had modified our daily routines so we
wouldn't end up crossing paths. I also took the precaution
of warning all of my Muslim friends about her, so they
would not be affected by her evil. Life went on. We mostly
forgot about Sara and her predictions.
About five years later, when my sister was just
seventeen, my father brought home someone he met in his
work. At this time, Morocco was once again independent.
This was good. Things didn't work out quite as we
expected, though. We thought that the French would be
our enemies for life, that we would kick them out of our
country and never allow them or their influence to return.
After we regained our independence, we all discovered
that we needed their help, their partnership in trade, their
expertise in building infrastructure, and so on. We also
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discovered that there were a lot of French people who were
actually happy that we were no longer considered a
protectorate or a colony, but that we were governing
ourselves. That surprised us, well, it surprised me anyway.
I probably shouldn't speak for everybody.
So anyway, my father brought home this engineer.
He was a Muslim, but he also had French citizenship.
Wow. We were amazed as my sister and I had never heard
of such a thing. He had nice eyes. I had my eye on
someone else, and my family knew it and were excited
about the prospect. However, my sister was unattached and
at a good age. The man thought so too, apparently, as he
later asked my father about his daughters. He told my
father how difficult it is to find a good Muslim girl to
marry in France, and how he was interested in finding a
wife during his visit. The two men made an agreement,
and my sister was happy. She moved to France with him as
Later, it was discovered that this man was not
everything he said he was. In fact, he was not even a
believer! The marriage was a false marriage and my sister
Matthew Helmke - 89
returned home humiliated and shamed. Because of the
man's Hes, and our innocence in the situation, people in
town quickly forgave the indiscretion and her reputation,
while blemished, was restored to a good one.
After a few years, she caught the eye of a merchant
from town. He approached our father, who was thrilled
that someone wanted his tainted daughter, and she was
married again, this time to a true Muslim.
It was around this time that my brother entered the
university. He also began to augment his studies by
attending English classes at the American Language
Center. There were people there from all over the world.
One of the instructors was a single American woman. She
wasn't particularly beautiful, but she was a Christian and
she was nice. Most importantly, she had a blue passport
and the promise of opportunities that came with it.
We all encouraged my brother to pursue her as a
wife, even though she was actually older than him. Well,
The Prophet's first wife (peace be upon him), Khadija, was
an older woman. She was even a widow, and a rich one
who helped secure his economic security at that time in his
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life. Why shouldn't my brother follow his example?
It turned out that the American woman loved all the
attention my brother paid to her and was quickly enthralled
with his charm. They were married by the end of the year,
and it wasn't long after that that they found a way to get
permission for him to live with her in America, so they
That was when we remembered what Sara had said
all those years earlier. So far, it has all come true, every
bit. I am still hoping that she was wrong about me. Do you
know anyone who is interested in marrying a 70 year old
Matthew Helmke - 91
The Magic Shop
Abderrazzaq was angry. He was usually angry, but
today was different. This was a larger, more powerful
anger. How dare that foreigner come to his shop and ask
him questions! He picked up a pink incense stone and
threw it. It landed in a bin of dried herbs without the
satisfaction of giving the slightest noise.
A steady stream of curses and obscenities flowed
through his mind. Of course, none of these would actually
be spoken. No. It was too important to maintain
appearances and the steady facade of wisdom. The people
must not see Abderrazzaq's anger. That could undermine
his power, position, and authority. This was not something
worth risking over one nosy infidel.
The day had begun normally. Abderrazzaq had risen
early. He had gone to the mosque to pray, then he had
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come to open his shop for the day. And his shop was a
special one. This fact was plain for everyone to see. There
were very few who understood the power and the potential
of his wares, but anyone, even a stupid kaffir who can't
even dress himself properly, could tell there was
something powerful here.
It was a small shop. No more than fifteen square
meters total, less than one hundred fifty square feet. There
was barely enough space for Abderrazzaq to enter and
move around, but that was okay. No one was actually
allowed inside to browse his stock. On one wall was a
door, the wall that faced the small street where crowds
passed by on foot all day. When the folding, metal door
was open, he could hang some of his products, the ones
which drew the most attention and which advertised most
clearly his purpose, on the door and the walls beside it.
People could see he was a seller of magic supplies, a
maker of potions, and a man of extreme power and
wisdom in the realm of the supernatural.
There were animal skins from zebras, cheetahs and
others. Next to them were hanging strings of dried lizards
Matthew Helmke - 93
from the desert and a small, open burlap sack filled with
dried chameleons. He had cages with live ones and boxes
of tortoises from the desert in various sizes. These were
necessary for normal activities, but were far more
important for their advertising value. Only someone with
deep, esoteric knowledge would be able to procure them
and know how and when to use them. Abderrazzaq's most
prized possessions, however, were kept inside.
Inside. That is where mysteries live. In the dark. In
the secret and secluded places. Only the eyes of the
enlightened are allowed to see those things in their raw
states. No, Abderrazzaq was not willing to talk about what
he used or why. He was not willing to talk about his
sources. Once a year he would close his shop for a month
or so and just disappear. When he would return, it would
be with a fresh supply of power for sale.
No one dares to ask Abderrazzaq for specific items.
You don't walk in and ask for a chameleon. You come
humbly. You describe your problem, your sickness, or
what sort of help you are seeking from the spiritual realm.
Only after he completely understands the problem.
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sometimes taking a full hour just to interview a client, will
Abderrazzaq offer a solution. Sometimes, he will enter the
darkness of the shop's interior. You will hear bottles
clanking, a mortar and pestle grinding, and a knife
scraping or cutting. In those times, he will emerge with a
small and scented pouch to wear around your neck, or a
packet filled with a mysterious mixture of dried herbs and
animal parts, maybe some filaments of unknown origin, to
add to food or drink to be ingested. Other times, he will set
an appointment for the client to meet him somewhere else,
usually late at night, for special assistance.
What the hell was that stupid farangee thinking?
Foreigners and unbelievers do not belong here. They have
no business with us. This is not for them. Abderrazzaq
could not get them out of his mind, with their pasty white
skin, blue eyes, and the audacity to try to take pictures of
him, his shop and his supplies. Do they think I will give
my secrets away? To them?? The thought appalled him
and made him feel a bit nauseous. I would let this
knowledge die first. None of my own family know my
secrets. You expect me to tell you, an infidel, a dog? He
Matthew Helmke - 95
Spat at the ground contemptuously as he contemplated the
very idea. He couldn't help going over the scene once
again in his mind.
He saw them while they were still far off. Foreigners
don't usually come to this part of town. When they do,
usually they are lost or something is wrong. Wait! These
foreigners were being guided by Hassan. That old traitor.
Just because he used to be the neighborhood spy, reporting
on everyone's actions to the government, he thinks he is
somebody. It's been a long time, Hassan. Remember when
they fired you? For being drunk? You are as bad as they
are. Don't bring that filth here.
"Salaamu Alaikum!" said Abderrazzaq in a kind,
gentle voice, "Peace be upon you, and greetings Mr.
Hassan. I see you brought some visitors with you today."
"Wa alaikum salaam," Hassan replied, "And upon
you, peace. Yes, these Americans are looking to find the
'real Morocco,' to discover how 'normal people' live, not
just the ones you see at the tour bus stops or the fancy
resorts. They are interested in your shop."
"I see." answered Abderrazzaq. "Tell them I sell
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traditional medicine, herbal supplements to help with
digestive problems and things like that."
"Tell them yourself. That one speaks Arabic."
Suddenly the blue-eyed, white man broke in,
"Salaam, assaidi. Peace, sir. Please forgive the intrusion.
May God open for you the doors of Heaven, please tell me
what you do here? What is your purpose in this
neighborhood? What do you sell?"
Abderrazzaq was taken aback with a short gasp that
he hoped no one noticed. He quickly regained his
composure and replied, "Sir, I can see you are well
educated. How surprising to meet an American who speaks
Moroccan Arabic. Darija is not a common language for
foreigners. Are you a Muslim?"
"No sir, just someone who lives in this country and
likes the people here very much, enough to work hard and
learn how to communicate with my friends. So, you are a
sort of doctor, a pharmacist, you say?"
"Yes, that is all. There is no magic here. All we do
is help people who can't afford to go to the western doctors
and use the European medicines. Our goods cost less and
Matthew Helmke - 97
work just as well for minor problems. We can't cure
cancer, but I can sell you something to help with
impotence." Abderrazzaq hoped the foreigner didn't quite
grasp the intended insult, and he amused himself while
"I see. What sort of stomach ailment is eased with
hair from a cheetah skin? Is dried lizard of value as a skin
creme? Does it somehow cure psoriasis? I can see that it is
not especially effective on acne." Thrust, parry, riposte.
The battle of the wits had begun. How long would it
continue? Would this outsider be willing to go all the way?
"Tell your friend to put his camera away. You may
take no pictures of me, of my shop, or of my things. Do
what you want elsewhere, but not here. It is forbidden."
Abderrazzaq stood firm, but without showing his hand or
answering to the issue. He thought, "I underestimated him.
He must be a spy, but for who? I can't risk finding out.
This battle need not be won. A stalemate will be adequate.
Time to turn to stone."
Apparently the foreigner felt similarly. With a quick
word to his comrades, he looked back at the shopkeeper
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and studied him briefly. Abderrazzaq was a short man,
short and thin with a worn face, wrinkled and tan like
leather. He wore a traditional robe, with a wool cloak over
it, because today was a rather cold day. On his head was a
knit cotton skullcap, typical of men of his generation. The
clothes were old, and slightly worn, but well cared for. The
shop was small and dingy, but absolutely packed with
merchandise. Looking into Abderrazzaq's eyes, the
foreigner knew he would get no further information from
this man. Better to let him save face and maintain his
respect in the neighborhood. Perhaps some one of the the
several other shopkeepers in the area, all of whom have
been watching the exchange intently, will be willing to
chat a bit.
"Sir, I thank you for your time. If I ever have a
friend with a stomachache, and he is in this area, I will
make sure to send him to you for help. May God help
you," the foreigner said as a polite goodbye.
"May God help you," replied Abderrazzaq, adding
under his breath, "to leave quickly and not return."
Matthew Helmke - 99
Sa'id was sick. Again. It was frustrating. His family
had tried everything in their power to help him get well.
He had visited doctors. He had taken medicine. He had
followed their diets and regimes to the letter. Nothing
The Bensouda family was not particularly religious.
They prayed, when they thought of it, or when people were
around. Otherwise, they considered themselves to be
modern people, people who believe in science, in
philosophy. God has a place in there somewhere, mainly in
the cultural foundations of their lives.
What do you do when you have exhausted the
resources of what you know? There was no medicine left,
no new procedure or treatment to try. Sa'id was sick, and
he was not going to get well, and least not with the help of
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science and medicine.
It was in the middle of those feehngs and thoughts
that Sa'id's uncle arrived. He was an old man, well in his
70s or 80s.
"I know what you need. You need to go to visit the
saints, offer a sacrifice, and ask them to pray on your
behalf to God."
"With all due respect, uncle, I don't believe it that.
No one needs anyone to stand between them and God as an
intercessor. If a person wants something from God, he
should ask God directly," answered Sa'id.
His uncle. Si Abdellah, continued, "I know you, my
nephew. I know your whole family. You are good people,
but you don't pray. You don't live for God the way you are
supposed to live for God. Why would you expect that he
would answer, or even listen to your prayers? The saints
are good men, blessed by God. They lived lives of
devotion and became friends of God. You have been to the
doctor. You have prayed to God yourself. We all know the
sorcerers and their work is evil. What is left? Ask the men
of God, the murabitoon, those tied to God and to the
Matthew Helmke - 101
community, to pray on your behalf."
"I wouldn't even know how, uncle. No one my age
believes in those sorts of things. I know that when you
were young almost everyone believed in them and did as
you are suggesting. Today, no one under the age of forty
has any knowledge of this. It is a dying belief."
"Come, my boy, and I will teach you. We have
much to do."
Sa'id and Si Abdellah began their preparations for
visits to the tombs of Moulay Boushta, Sidi Ahmad Tijani,
Sidi Ali Boughalib, Moulay Idriss the First and the
Second, Sidi Hamamoush and even Sidi Ali and Sidi
Harazem, although the last two made Sa'id laugh a bit
inside since their names are all over the country, being
used to sell bottled water from the natural springs bearing
"Uncle, there are so many. How can we do it? Plus,
it is very expensive to buy and take a sacrifice with us to
each place. How shall we ever pay for it all? What does a
dead person need with a chicken or a goat anyway?" asked
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"The gifts are for the descendants of the saints. It is
our way of honoring the heritage and blessing of the saints
themselves, by helping to provide for their progeny. Don't
worry, Sa'id, God will provide what we need to give." Si
Abdellah didn't tell the boy that he had cleaned out his
own life's savings to collect enough money to buy candles
and sacrifices to offer at each location. "It is time, let us
First, they went to the more commonly known and
easiest to visit tombs in Fez. At the shrine of Moulay Idriss
the Second they entered quietly, bearing a gift of a large
candle. They lit it and put it in place as they asked the
descendant of the Prophet Mohammed to assist them in
their time of need, to please ask God on Sa'id's behalf for
healing, for health, and for protection. Even though they
knew the path well, it was difficult to get in and out that
day. The city had become a tourist site, with people from
Europe, America, and more coming to tour and shop as if
Fez is part of a living history museum. While they were
praying, the two men saw cameras flash from outside the
door of the sanctuary and heard the mobs of tourists in
Matthew Helmke - 103
shorts and t- shirts jabbering in unknown languages.
"This is all wrong," began Si Abdellah. "This place
has been defiled by all the outsiders coming to gawk and
stare. There is no baraka left, no blessing. Let's leave."
He and Sa'id walked just a few minutes, twisting
through the narrow, tall and winding passageways of the
ancient city. When they arrived at the shrine and mosque
of Sidi Ahmad Tijani, it was closed. They hunted around
the area until they found someone with a key to open the
door. As they entered, they were told that they should have
come the previous month, during the annual festival for the
saint. At that time, there were people from all over,
including as far as Senegal and the Sudan. There had been
music, chanting and recitations, sacrifices, and prayers.
That was the time to come. If they wanted to enter and
pray now, that was okay, but they should also plan to
return next year for the festival.
The two men sighed. Again, this felt fruitless and
frustrating. Empty. Si Abdellah looked at his charge and
directed him to pray. They did, performing all of the
necessary parts of the pilgrimage rituals. Then they left.
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They hoped their visit to the festivals of Sidi AH ben
Hamdoush and Sidi Ahmed Dghoughi, near Meknes,
would be better. Those ended poorly.
At these, several people were arrested for entering
into homosexual marriages during the festival. This was
after the two men had witnessed amazing acts said to
display the power of the members of the Sufi sect, the
Hamdusha, acts which did not feel holy at all. The
Hamdusha would dance and sing themselves into a frenzy,
and at the emotional peak of the festivities begin cutting
themselves with bits of pottery, even throwing whole pots
into the air and allowing the falling pots to land on their
heads to cut and injure them further.
The members of the Sufi brotherhood would drink
boiling water and offer it to the crowd. They would stick
knives into their eyes, and then threaten to do the same to
anyone in the crowd that failed to give an appropriate
Some in the crowd would light candles to pray for
the blessing of Lalla Aisha, a female jinn, a spirit. This
made the men very uncomfortable.
Matthew Helmke - 105
"Uncle," Sa'id began, "I thought these things were
outlawed, both by Moroccan civil law and by Islamic law.
I can feel in my heart that these things are not good, and I
know they are not what you have taught me my whole life.
Are we suddenly Shi'a, that we should behave as they do
during their mourning of Ali?"
At that moment, a woman became more and more
excited, chanting and dancing with increasing fervor. She
entered into a trance and fell to the ground, where she
began to speak, but with the voice of a man rather than the
one she had been using.
"I agree, nephew. We should leave, and quickly.
Surely there is a saint somewhere in Morocco that is still
celebrated by people interested in more than money and
spectacle, and who are unstained by pagan ritual. We will
look," answered Si Abdellah.
Their visits to the other shrines ended with similar
feelings, though the specific circumstances were different
in each case. They visited places near Fez, then in the
surrounding region, and even traveled as far as Agadir in
the Souss looking for something that was both powerful
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In the end, they decided to visit the shrine of
Moulay Idriss the First during his moussem. After the bad
experience at his son's tomb in Fez, they had not wanted to
come, but they were running out of options, and Moulay
Idriss is generally honored most highly among the saints in
Morocco. This was the father of the man whose tomb they
had visited in Fez, one who brought Islam to Morocco,
long before the territory bore that name. Back then, the
most powerful of the chiefs of the indigenous Berber tribes
lived in the decaying Roman frontier city of Volubilus.
Moulay Idriss was the great-grandson of the Prophet
Mohammed, the grandson of Mohammed's daughter,
Fatima and his nephew, Ali. He had been the heir to the
caliphate in Damascus, but there had been a civil war. A
disagreement broke out over who was the best person to
lead the Muslim community, a descendant of the prophet,
or one chosen solely on the basis of their morality. With
the split between the Shi'a and the Sunni, and the victory
of the Sunni Ummayads, the Middle East became a
dangerous place for a descendant of Mohammed to live.
Matthew Helmke - 107
He headed west to spread the word of Islam.
When Moulay Idriss arrived at Volubilus, he entered
into an accord with the inhabitants, who crowned him their
leader and protector against another Arab, Harun al-Rashid
of Baghdad, who claimed dominion over this land. Moulay
Idriss led everyone in the Berber tribes in politics and in
the faith. He started his own city on the hills nearby,
surrounded by olive groves. Zerhoun was easier to defend,
and better for living, but it was not perfect. One of his
enemies from Baghdad eventually sneaked in and poisoned
the holy man, who was then buried in his city. His servant
led the community until his son, Moulay Idriss the Second,
was able to rule.
"Come, my nephew. Let us go and offer a sacrifice
at this holy man's tomb," said Si Abdellah. "Surely one so
close to the holy prophet, both in deeds and in blood, will
be able to help us. So powerful is this great man's baraka
that it is said that seven pilgrimages to his tomb are the
equivalent of one pilgrimage to Mecca. Perhaps he will
plead with God to have mercy on us."
They arrived by taxi in the town, down at the base.
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the town square at the bottom of the steep hill. Zerhoun is
built on two small, very steep hills, with a open area on
one side in the center. From this marketplace, one may
climb the steep slopes and walkways up, up, up the hill.
Finally, after a difficult climb for an old man and a
sick younger one, they arrived at the tomb. The entrance
began with a walk down a long, somewhat narrow
corridor. The floor was tiled in a diagonal square pattern of
marble and stone. The lower portion of the side walls were
covered with small, hand cut tiles in a very basic, but
attractive pattern. The walls and archways were pure
white, with the occasional brass lamp. They arrived at the
main entrance to the inner chamber, which welcomed its
guests with beautiful marble pillars, most likely salvaged
from the ruins of the Roman city. Of course, the open
ceiling of the mosque courtyard was edged with the same
green ceramic tiles as the roof covering the mausoleum.
The two men entered the shrine in awe. They
respectfully performed their ritual prayers and then
approached slowly. As they did, they were overwhelmed
with emotion, even Sa'id, who still wasn't sure he believed
Matthew Helmke - 109
in all this. They felt at peace, and sat along a wall of the
mosque to present their requests. With permission, they
spent the night there praying. Then they spent a second
night, and a third.
It is said that God did have mercy on them, for they
never woke up from their sleep that last night. Instead, the
people here say God took them to paradise.
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Matthew Helmke -111
Rabat is pretty this time of the year. It isn't too hot.
It isn't too cold. There is a nice breeze that comes in from
the ocean which lends a sweet fragrance to the air. If you
climb up the steps to the gate and enter the Casbah des
Oudaias, then pass through to the lookout point above the
mouth of the Bouregreg River, you will have a lovely view
of Rabat's sister city, Sale.
You may have heard of Sale. It was the embarkation
point for raiders, pirates actually, for many years. This
river used to be a little bit deeper, and the shallow hulls of
the "Sallee Raiders," as they were known by the British
and others, were able to navigate upstream. The deeper
hulls of the European and American ships they attacked
were unable to enter, and were instead trapped by the
cannons at Sale and Rabat. That may have been the high
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point of local power and international influence.
Today our claim to fame is that we have the seat of
the government. The King lives here, he has multiple
palaces in the area, and this is also the location of the
different government ministries, the parliament, and most
of the embassies for the nations of the world. Still, some of
the ancient ways remain.
There is a cave nearby, a grotto really. It is a very
important grotto. It is filled with baraka, with blessing. A
woman who comes to this grotto and performs the proper
ritual will marry. That is vital to her happiness and
survival. At least that is what they tell me.
Who are they? They are my sisters, my aunt, my
mother, and even my grandmother. To make absolutely
sure they are telling me the truth, I have asked others about
this place. Without fail, they all tell the same story. Still,
I'm not ready to do it. Even though all the important
women in my life say I am getting old, that I am nearly
past my marriageable years, I am just not sure whether this
will do anything to help.
I'm sorry. I really should step back a bit. You don't
Matthew Helmke - 113
know anything about me, about my family, about my
situation. How can you possibly understand what I am
talking about, and why this is important, unless you know
who and what I am?
I am the youngest daughter of the youngest
daughter. The last of the line. Everyone else is married.
My grandmother and even my mother are widows, and my
two brothers take care of them, one each in the brothers'
homes. Then there is me. I am the extra burden that each
one fights to get rid of. One extra person in each home is
welcome, two people means one person too many. They
want me to get married so that my husband will be
responsible for my safety, for my housing and food, and
for my livelihood.
My sisters all mock me. "Look at you," they say,
"You are already fifteen years old, and still you do not
have a man." I try to respond that this is 2008, that
Moroccans are getting married older now, that it is okay to
wait until after I finish high school and maybe even study
at the university. They tell me I am a selfish little pig. All I
want to do is pursue what is best for my future. They tell
114 - Nowhere Else to Turn
me a man is what is best for my future, not "stealing from
I really don't know what to do. I want my family to
love me, or to at least like me, or in the absence of that, to
respect me. They don't. Maybe if I do what they say, they
It wasn't always this way. When I was young, and
my father was still alive, everyone treated me better. I
remember times when he and grandpa would take me to
the cafe with them and let me sit at the table while they
talked about life, politics, and the news of the day. Those
were good times. I miss both men terribly.
Oh yes, back then things were different. If someone
was mean to me, then dad or grandpa would stick up for
me and protect me. They died last year in a fishing
accident, something about there being too many people in
the boat and it tipped over. Anyway, I don't know much
about what happened, but I've never seen that many people
fishing in the same boat at the same time. Where would
they put the fish? Well, there's nothing I can do about it
Matthew Helmke - 115
Ever since then, I am not allowed to talk about them,
I'm not allowed to go outside the house without an escort,
and sometimes I can't even go out of my bedroom unless I
am coming to help with the housework. It seems I have to
do most of the housework now. The good side is that there
isn't as much anymore since most of the family has moved
out, but grandma and mom don't seem to want to do
anything. They boss me around all the time. They make
me clean, cook, and everything. The only thing they will
do is the shopping, because they say they don't want other
people looking at me before I am married and out of their
I just remembered a kind of sad and odd story that
will help you understand my life. About six months ago,
my sister was preparing to be married. She came in to the
house and talked for a while with all of us ladies. There
was going to be a big party that week at our house to
celebrate. Everyone from our family, uncles, brothers,
nieces and nephews, even people from out in the
countryside were coming. Her soon-to-be husband's family
were all coming, too. There was going to be music and
776 - Nowhere Else to Turn
food and I was so excited.
On the day of the party, I spent the whole day in the
kitchen, helping prepare the lamb, the roasted chickens, the
sweets, and everything. I didn't even get to eat, I was so
busy. Finally, the time came and our guests started to
arrive. I hurried to take off my work clothes and put on my
party dress when my mother, grandmother, and sisters all
said, "What do you think you are doing?"
I told them I needed to get ready for the party, and
they told me I had to stay in the kitchen to take care of
things because they were all going out to host the ladies in
the woman's party room while the male relatives would be
hosting the men in their room.
I complained that I wanted to go with them, and they
said there was no way. I was the youngest, and it was
therefore my responsibility to take care of everyone. That
didn't seem right, but what could I do?
I heard the music. I saw the presents pass by the
kitchen on their way to the room where they were being
stored. I finished preparing the food, just like I was told,
and gave it to the the relatives in charge of doing the
Matthew Helmke -117
public hosting when they came to take it to the guests. The
men ate first. The women ate later. I was allowed to eat
whatever was left over. Then, I cleaned it all up by myself
and went to bed crying.
Maybe getting married wouldn't be so bad. How am
I supposed to meet someone when I am only allowed to go
to school and straight home? With how my family treats
me, I'm afraid of who they would pick for me. I don't think
there have been any men asking for my hand anyway. I
wonder, is it me? Is there something wrong with me that
no one wants me?
My sisters always call me names and say that I am
ugly, stupid and undesirable. Could it be true? Maybe that
is why they keep telling me about the grotto. Maybe if I
went there, it would make me desirable enough for
someone to ask my family to marry me. If that happened, I
could escape. That's it. I decided to do it.
And so the preparations began. Let's jump ahead two
I have never been so nervous in my life. For years I
have heard about this ritual, how it is performed, what I
118 - Nowhere Else to Turn
need to have with me and what I need to do. I never
dreamed I would perform it myself. I am fully dressed in
my jellaba and head scarf, as usual, but today I am
carrying a red string with me. I only hope I can find at
least one, preferably several older, married women to help
me when I get there. My family has been so difficult lately
that I decided I would have to do this without them, so I
left school early today, before anyone would know I am
I took the bus out to the river. Then, I hiked to where
I was told to find the grotto, along the sea, a little ways
past the mouth of the river. I made sure no one followed
When I got close to where I was told to go, I was
lucky enough to find two old women. They were smiling
and they asked me if I needed help with the ritual. I was
very grateful. They helped me push past the crowd, which
I did not expect to be there, and into the grotto. The sandy
floor was soft and wet. They told me to get ready.
I took off all of my clothes and handed them to one
of the women. The other one tied a red string to my wrist
Matthew Helmke -119
and told me to lay down on a long, flat rock in the corner,
which she pointed out. I did. The women laughed and told
me I did it wrong, and corrected how I was laying down.
They said that for the ritual to be effective, they
have to leave me alone in the grotto, just as I am, and that
they will exit, holding the other end of the red string.
"How long to I have to stay here?" I asked.
"Just until we tug on the other end. We will do that
when we are sure that the baraka is working. It may take
half an hour or an hour. Just wait. Don't forget, you have to
be completely silent the whole time."
So I laid there. And I laid there. And I laid there
some more. Finally, it had been several hours. I knew
because the sun was high in the sky when I entered, and
now it was starting to get dark. I tugged on the string. It
didn't give, and it didn't tug back. I got worried. What if
the ritual didn't work? What would I do?
I heard voices outside, lots of them, mostly young
men. Someone noticed the string moving. Oh no, they
were laughing and talking. What was that they were
saying? Something about another one duped. Where are
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the women? Where are my clothes? How will I ever get
out of here?
Matthew Helmke - 121
"Shut that child up, and do it now!" The voice
echoed through the house, continuing up the narrow alley
we lived on, and into the ears of our neighbors.
"Grandma, why do you have to be so loud and angry
sounding when you say that?" I asked tentatively. "All the
neighbors will hear, and it embarrasses me."
"I have to be loud, so that the neighbors know that
we are doing our best to keep things quiet. I don't want
them to think we are ignoring the boy. That would be
"It doesn't matter anyway," I replied with a sigh,
"They can't hear what you are saying over all the
screaming and crying. Grandma, we have to do
"I have an idea."
722 - Nowhere Else to Turn
Slowly and deliberately, the old woman packed a
small bag with food. She gently picked up her very loud
grandson and motioned to her granddaughter to follow.
The two of them walked through the ancient city of Fez
together, winding through the twists and turns of narrow
passages, past open areas with fountains and shops, down
dark and forbidding alleys. Not a sound was spoken by
either woman, but little Nassir cried loudly the entire way.
Finally, they exited the gate at Bab Ftouh.
"Grandma, where are we going?" the younger
"We are going to get help from Sidi Harazem."
"Sidi Harazem!" the boy's mother replied, "Are you
crazy? We don't have the money to take a bus all the way
to the saint's hot springs."
"What do they teach children now days? Honestly,
my granddaughter, do you not know that there are two
saints with that name? The second, Sidi Harazem the Cold,
is buried right up on the hill in front of you, on the way to
Sahab al Ward. We can walk there in a few minutes."
The group walked, out from the city gate, across the
Matthew Helmke - 123
large road that goes to the new town in one direction and
to Oujda in the other, and began their trek up the hill on
the other side. They passed the walls of the cemetery. They
passed the vendors, with their wares on blankets on the
curb. The grandmother stopped in front of a man with a
cart loaded with fresh fruit. Nassir was still discontent and
"How much for two oranges?" she asked. Then
followed some bargaining and arguing, until finally, she
was content with the price and bought two big ones.
"I really don't understand what you are doing,"
chimed her granddaughter.
"We need an offering for the saint. Since we are
poor, this will be acceptable."
"But, grandma, what are we doing?"
"Sidi Harazem the Cold is able to cure children of
screaming and crying fits. This has been done for hundreds
of years. Some people try to do it at home, but it is far
more effective to do it here, at his tomb. Come, and you
They climbed further, eventually entering the gate to
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the cemetery. Then, they winded past the markers to the
mausoleum of the saint. It looked like most, about ten or
twelve feet square, with a green tile roof, and a metal door
on one end. There was a person sitting on the step by the
door, dressed in rags with a dirty face and matted hair.
"This, my granddaughter, is one of the descendants
of Sidi Harazem, and so she must be honored. The family
carries, to this day, a special blessing and power. The
ladies gave their gift of fruit, which was gratefully
accepted. Then, the door to the tomb was opened. Little
Nassir was beside himself with frustration, loudly venting
his anger with tears. The ladies entered the tomb, with
their guide, and placed Nassir on the floor.
"Quickly, you must move quickly," their guide
All of them ran out of the door, except for the boy.
The door to the tomb was shut and bolted from the outside.
Nassir screamed even louder from within.
"How long do we have to do this?" the child's
mother begged. "I can't take it!"
Both the grandmother and the daughter of the saint
Matthew Helmke - 125
replied that he must remain in the tomb until he is calm,
completely calm. If he does, he will never cry again.
They waited. The screams changed from angry to
frantic as panic took over.
"Grandma! He's only two!!"
"No, child, we must leave him there. The saint will
The weeping mother listened as her son's tears
turned from hysterical weeping to a mournful wail, and
then to a whimper.
"Can we go in yet to get him?" she asked.
"No, not yet. He must be silent."
The ladies waited for over two hours. They ate some
of the food they brought, sharing with their hostess. The
mother cried some more and was held and consoled by the
"There, there, dear. You really are doing the right
thing. He will be so much better behaved after this is
Finally, it was silent. To be sure, the ladies waited
another twenty or thirty minutes, asking Sidi Harazem to
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help the boy and make sure he would stay calm. Then they
opened the door.
Looking up, they saw two glassy eyes with a distant
stare. The treatment was effective. He would never cry
Matthew Helmke - 127
I have spent the last few weeks reading over my
notes and this manuscript again. In the process, I found
some photos; one of the fig tree mentioned in A Wife from
the Mountains, another of me with the friend with whom I
attended the soccer match, shots of various sites in the city
of Fes, where I was privileged to live for many years.
During this time I have been struck yet again by
how normal all of these stories seemed to the people
telling them. The supernatural was not something unusual
or exotic to them, it simply described power beyond what
each of them had.
Many of my friends in Morocco believe in these
things. Many do not. All give assent to the prevalence of
its existence in the corporate mindset. You can not have a
conversation in Morocco without mentioning God. You
128 - Nowhere Else to Turn
can not greet your neighbor, welcome a client, or visit the
barber without the name of God being invoked, typically
many times. In Morocco, even the agnostics and the
atheists speak of God, the devil, angels, demons, genies,
blessings and curses. You can not understand the country
nor the culture without first understanding both its official
religion, Islam, and also its unofficial quasi-religious
I am now living back in my country of origin, the
United States of America. There are wonderful things in
both places, but I find myself missing in America the
openness that Moroccan culture has to the existence of the
supernatural realm. Those who talk about such things in
the West generally fall into the category of X-Files fans,
UFO believers, or a certain percentage of religious
adherents. In each case, the general population thinks these
beliefs are eccentric; benign at best, odd and dangerous at
Personally, I think our world could stand to have a
bit more openness to mysticism, more of an
acknowledgment that there are things that are
Matthew Helmke - 129
unexplainable by science and which may best be left that
way. Then again, perhaps the current trend toward movies
with ores, fairies, and religious themes are demonstrating a
return of openness that is growing in the hearts and lives of
the younger generations, no longer content to believe in
nothing but that which may be proven or observed by the
scientific method. Time will tell.
In any case, I hope you have enjoyed the book and
have gained from it a new insight into and appreciation of
a culture and people whom I love deeply.
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Matthew Helmke - 131
Final notes and thoughts
You may have noticed the license under which I
have released this work. Let me take a moment and explain
why I have done this, rather than reserve all of the rights
for myself. This work is definitely copyrighted, you can
see that on one of the first pages. I am the copyright
holder. I have created this work for several purposes, one
of which is that I hope to make some money from it.
However, this is not the only reason for publishing this
book. My greatest hope is that other people will find the
information contained within it useful. I have given you,
the reader, permission to copy, distribute, display and
perform this work, and to make derivative works, as long
as you follow a few simple rules on which I will now
132 - Nowhere Else to Turn
First, you have to make sure and tell everyone that I
am the author and owner of the copyright. In other words,
you can copy it for your personal use or even for others to
benefit from, but you can't claim that you are the author.
Second, you may not use this work for commercial
purposes — that's my prerogative and my privilege alone as
the creator of the work. I'm happy for you to use it as you
like and even share it, but any money made from this work
should be made by me.
Finally, if you alter, transform or build upon this
work for any purpose other than personal use (that is, if
you distribute your changes or additions) you must also
release your work under this same license. You can be paid
for your work, your additions or changes, but you have to
let others use them in the same way I have let you use this
It is my goal that as many people as possible benefit
from this work. If you want to study it in a group and one
person from the group buys a copy and then makes
photocopies for the others in the group, I'm okay with that.
If you can afford to, I would prefer that you each buy
Matthew Helmke - 133
copies, but I'm not going to be persnickety about it as long
as you don't sell the copies. I really hope that you will be
able to make good use of the content that is in this work,
that you feel free to discuss it, and learn from it.
I want you to feel free to make a study guide if you
wish, or recordings of the texts, or whatever else you
might think up. However, if you do so, then I simply
require that you treat me and others as I have treated you. I
require that you release your work with the same
availability and limits I have placed on this one so that
others will benefit from your work just as you have
benefited from mine. I also ask that you properly cite your
original source (me). Sound fair? I think so. "Freely you
received, so freely give."
Following in the same vein as the work's license, all
the software and even the fonts used in creating this book
are freely licensed and can be used and distributed without
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Matthew Helmke - 135
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Also by Matthew Helmke
Humor and Moroccan Culture
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136 - Nowhere Else to Turn